Two years ago, the Horn of Africa was on the cusp of a democratic revolution. “There is a wind of hope blowing in the Horn of Africa,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
However, although Ethiopia and Somalia are among 14 African countries holding elections in 2020, democratic revolution in the Horn is retreating.
Conceptually, propelling democracy promotion in the Horn of Africa, as elsewhere in the World, was the “democratic peace theory” that posits that democracies do not go to war against each other. Sadly, this provided the intellectual justification for “interventions” and forcible regime change.”
As the fulcrum of state relations in the Horn, the democratic peace paradigm is being eclipsed by the equally pervasive "autocratic peace theory" that holds that autocracies, like democracies, do not go to war against each other.
The Gedo region of Somalia’s Jubaland State bordering Kenya and Ethiopia has become a byword for illiberal strategies and rivalries in the Horn giving legs to the autocratic peace theory.
As the May 2020 election draws near, Ethiopia risks delivering anarchy at home and across the Horn Region. Democratic reforms that seek to change Ethiopia’s autocratic system weaved around more than 80 different Ethiopian ethnic groups is proving a mission impossible. Bouts of ethno-extremism and ethno-nationalism, has assaulted democracy, forced it into retreat, killed hundreds and triggered the displacement of 3.5 million in 2019 alone.
Here, ethno-nationalism largely fuelled the killing of Amhara’s regional governor Ambachew Mekonnen, on June 22, 2019 and the assassination of Ethiopia's army chief, General Seare Mekonnen. Ethnic extremism has stoked intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic violence which caused 86 deaths in Oromia on October 23-26, 2019; fuelled secessionism in the Tigray region where there are talks of “Tigray independence”; and is propelling intra-regional secessionism as witnessed by violent demonstrations in July 2019 by ethnic Sidama demanding a separate state of their own.
‘Autocratic peace theory finds its best expression in the idea of a supra-ethnic ‘Cushitic Alliance’ mooted in August 2018 by Prime Minister Abiy and Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, who also roped in Eritrean President, Isaias Afwerki.
Inside Ethiopia, the Cushitic Alliance is a trident strategy to maintain stability in the Oromia and Somali regions, provide a counterpoise to the Amhara and Tigray opposition and rally the Oromo behind the government.
But if the Cushitic Alliance has failed to stem violence between Oromo and Somali in Ethiopia, it has enabled Ethiopia to forge ties with Villa Somalia to shield itself from Somali nationalism, intervene in Somali politics and pursue its economic and geo-strategic interests.
For different reasons, Jubaland remains a highly prized target of intervention under the Cushitic Alliance. On its part, Somalia is using the Abiy-Farmajo détente to orchestrate regime change against renegade federal states ahead of the 2020/21 parliamentary and presidential elections. For Ethiopia, a friendly leader in Jubaland will provide an unhindered access to the five Somalia’s Indian Ocean ports agreed with Farmajo: Kismayo, Balawe, Basasso, Barbera and Hobyo north of Mogadishu.
“We built one of the strongest ground and air forces in Africa”, Abiy declared in June 2018, adding that: “We should build our naval force capacity in the future.” Since then, he has re-established the Ethiopian navy, disestablished in 1996 after the independence of Eritrea in 1991 left the country landlocked. Its aim is to protect its commercial ships and address the “current fast changing world, socio-economic and political situation in Ethiopia.”
Ethiopia’s concerns with the “very volatile” Red Sea area explain its shift from the Port of Djibouti to the Jubaland corridor. "We are afraid perhaps in the future that even Djibouti may not have its own say to really decide on its own fate. This is quite a threat to Ethiopia," said an Ethiopian official. The navy also is part of that project of the “unification of the Horn of Africa as an economic bloc,” according to its diplomat Birhanemeskel Abebe.
Expectedly, both Addis Ababa and Villa Somalia moved in heavily to fashion the outcome of the Jubaland state elections in August 2019. The highpoint, according to the opposition Forum for National Parties (FNP) was the “failed attempt of Ethiopian forces to hijack the election in Jubaland by sending a plane full of specially trained commandos to Kismayo so as to prevent the legitimate authority of Jubaland from organising and managing the local elections”. Ethiopia and Somalia arrested Security Minister of Jubaland, Abdirashid Janan, during the election on August 22, 2019 and has since been held in custody in Mogadishu.
After the re-election of Madobe, Farmajo rejected the outcomes and put sanctions on Jubaland. Somalia is working with Ethiopia to fast-track the Juba Valley Corridor Operational Plan, previously adopted by the African Union in February 2018 as a blueprint to neutralise Al-Shabaab in Jamane, Jilib, Buuale and Sakow. However, the plan has become an idiom of regime change against President Ahmed Madobe.The end-game of the operation, which takes place between January and February 2020, is to gain control of security forces in the Gedo region and use them to capture Bu’ale, Jubaland capital from Al-Shabaab and call for new Jubaland election there. Madobe will be out-numbered, out-gunned and out-maneuvered.
Ethiopia has made its non-AMISOM troops available to Somalia. Villa Somalia has reportedly provided $1.8 million towards the Bu’ale strategy. In November, Ethiopian troops arrested and forcibly took away officials and military officials in the Gedo region for “refusing to work with the Somali government”.
Among those arrested and given conditions to denounce Jubaland Government were the commissioners from Beled-Hawo, Luq and Dolow districts of Gedo region and the Jubbaland army general commanding the troops in Gedo.
The high-stakes battle for Gedo is rolling back the gains made in peace-building, democracy and counter-terrorism in Somalia and the region.
Professor Peter Kagwanja is Former Government Advisor and Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute